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Spent Nuclear Fuel: Final Destinations

20 May 2009
© IAEANatural uranium is the raw material for fuel at nuclear power plants producing electricity. At fuel-cycle facilities, the uranium is processed and fabricated into solid ceramic pellets. Each small pellet contains enriched uranium dioxide that releases a great amount of energy -- equivalent to about one ton of coal -- when used in a reactor. (Credit: Dean Calma/IAEA; Westinghouse Electric Sweden AB Fuel Fabrication Plant)The pellets are sealed inside strong metal tubes, called fuel rods. The rods then are bundled together into a fuel assembly ready for use in a reactor. A nuclear fuel assembly typically stays in a reactor for several years. (Credit: Dean Calma/IAEA; Westinghouse Electric Sweden AB Fuel Fabrication Plant)  Once fuel assemblies are "burned up", or spent, they are removed from the reactor using special machines. The spent fuel -- measured in terms of its heavy metal content -- still emits high heat and dangerous levels of radiation, and will stay highly radioactive for a long period of time. More than 10,000 tonnes of heavy metal are unloaded from the world's 440-plus nuclear power plants each year. All of the spent fuel is classified as sensitive nuclear material and must be managed to ensure safety and security. (Credit: Dean Calma/IAEA; Mochovce Nuclear Power Plant, Levice, Slovakia)In most countries operating nuclear electricity plants, spent fuel is placed in an engineered storage pond at or near the reactor site. The aim is to allow the spent fuel to cool and the radiation levels to decrease. Water shields the radiation and absorbs the heat. The spent fuel is kept there for many years. (Credit: Areva, France; La Hague, France)Countries have different strategies for the management and final disposition of spent fuel. In most of them, the used fuel is transferred to central facilities built for long-term storage. In a few others, spent fuel is transferred to production facilities built for reprocessing it into new nuclear fuel. Six countries -- Belgium France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom -- have reprocessing and related facilities to produce mixed-oxide nuclear fuel, which is a blend of plutonium and enriched uranium recovered from spent fuel.  (Credit: SKB Sweden, Central Interim Storage Facility for Spent Fuel, or CLAB)The volume of spent fuel is rising. To make room for more, countries are expanding capacities at storage sites, and developing "dry" technologies that enable longer term storage over periods of decades. These technologies include engineered modular vaults, silos, and casks. (Credit: Connecticut Yankee; CY Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation, United States)Ultimately, spent nuclear fuel must either be reprocessed into new fuel or prepared for transport and permanent disposal. The most widely accepted disposal option is a geological repository engineered for highly radioactive waste. (Credit: Dean Calma/IAEA; Train transport of spent fuel, Prague, Czech Republic)No geological repository for spent fuel or high-level waste has been built. But many countries are making progress towards building one. Scientists are working in deep underground research laboratories, mainly situated in ancient rock and salt formations. (Credit:  Comet, Grimsel Underground Rock Laboratory, Switzerland).As nuclear power generation expands, notably in Asia, projections show that far more spent fuel will have to be managed in years to come. So far, the cumulative volume of spent fuel discharged over the past 50 years exceeds 280,000 tonnes of heavy metal. Just about one-third of this amount has been reprocessed; the rest remains in storage. (Credit: Petr Pavlicek/IAEA; Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, India)Global cooperation through the IAEA includes studying regional and multinational approaches to the management and disposition of spent nuclear fuel. On the legal front, countries are joining the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Managenment and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. The agreement obliges parties to submit periodic national reports that are subject to peer review and questioning. The Convention in 2009 had 48 Contracting States that together accounted for about 97% of all the spent fuel being generated commercially. (Credit: Anthony Funnel/IAEA; Joint Convention Third Review Meeting, May 2009, at the IAEA)© IAEA
Last update: 15 February 2018

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